Category Archives: Reflections

Reflections on how we feel and how the mission is changing us

“Bringing Names to Numbers”

Nine. The number of days in the field. Nine days of digging in the hard south Texas dirt. Nine days bringing the remains of the nameless back to the surface; back to the light of day. Nine long, tiring days of body aches and pains.

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Day 7Day 8 group photoDay 9

Seventy-two. The number of bodies uncovered by our efforts. The number of persons either too poor to afford what most would consider a ‘proper’ burial, or too poor and downtrodden to afford the ‘proper’ route to United States citizenship and instead paid the ultimate price: their lives.

Thirty-seven. The number of individuals whose bodies and personal effects traveled to Texas State University for forensic anthropological investigation. The number of families who we hope, through our efforts, will one day see closure.

The slogan for Texas State Universities’ Operation Identification is “bringing names to numbers”.  A New York Times article from May 2017  reported that there were 6,023 documented migrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border between October 2000 and September 2016 (NYTimes, 2017). It is hard, though, to picture the true magnitude that numbers entail until you see body bag after body bag being removed from the ground and placed in a cargo trailer.

For me, participation in this years Beyond Borders team really drove home the crisis that is occurring in our country. Sure, I have attended lectures on the topic, processed remains of migrants, and read articles reporting the issue, but participating first hand in the recovery of these individuals has placed it all in a new light. I recall a story told by our backhoe driver in which he told us about job-offers from the cartel and how people who mistakenly take these offers are told they will be loading cargo only to arrive and be forced at gunpoint to load semi trailers full of illicit drugs. Working class citizens, who want nothing more than money to put food on the table, roped into a massive international drug ring; not by choice but in fear for their lives. If these things are happening in the US, I can only imagine the atrocities people are facing further south where there is less security and a far lower standard of living.

When viewed in this light, it is easy to see why people will risk literally everything to cross the border by foot. Obviously not every migrant will have had direct contact with the Cartel;  this does not, however negate the fact that our country offers safeties, luxuries and opportunities that many can barely dream of… Things that for many are entirely financially and logistically out of reach by the ‘proper’ methods. Things  that are worth literally dying for.

Jordan

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The fire still burns

It has been a strange couple of days since I’ve returned home from Texas. I assumed I would fall asleep immediately on the night we returned and catch up on the hours of sleep I had lost during the trip. I assumed my body would be fatigued and ready to finally quit once I made it home. Yet somehow, to my surprise, I had quite a lot of momentum to unpack my bags and take a nice long shower before bed. Truthfully, I think I was still excited. The fire that burned inside of us all, that had kept us all going as we pushed ourselves to our limits during the last two weeks, was still stirring inside me.

Probing on day 1
Probing the surface on day 1

Now that my life has returned to a normal pace over the past few days, I have had the chance to reflect on the various ways that Beyond Borders has positively affected me for the rest of my life. Based on the presentations I had seen beforehand by previous Beyond Borders teams, there were a number of takeaways I was expecting to gain from this experience. First, I was expecting to gain technical skills. As mapping apprentice, I knew I would be presented with a ton of information in order to solidify the foundation I would need to apply the principles of mapping to future scenarios. I was also hoping to refine some of the essential techniques for successfully surveying and excavating a site. Second, I expected to gain perspective in regard to the sociopolitical issues going on at the Texas-Mexico border. Third, I expected to gain professional relationships with colleagues and volunteers participating in the exhumation of buried migrants. All of these expectations turned out to be true, but I learned so much more than I was originally expecting.

UIndy's team digging trenches to investigate the area
UIndy’s team digging trenches to investigate the area

I was astonished by how well our team worked together. For how little we knew each other, we shared some incredible, collaborative moments from the moment we began working together on our quadrant. The sheer magnitude of individuals that needed to be exhumed from the cemetery surpassed all of our expectations. What was initially assumed to be up to 30 migrants buried at the cemetery became over 70 individuals scattered throughout the cemetery in unmarked graves.  After knowing almost nothing about the site beforehand, we practically went in blind on our first day. We were not able to devise a plan as we hoped, so I learned a lot about thinking on your toes. The quick-thinking, collective, group-effort that took place during this trip was an essential lesson that I will be able to apply to forensic anthropological recoveries in the future.

I was also amazed by how raw and real the South Texas border issues felt on a daily basis. For instance, there was security present at most establishments due to high crime in the area. Even the vehicle checkpoint in Falfurias, with regular and infrared cameras facing every direction, was there to protect against drug and illegal immigrant smuggling into the Northern parts of the state. I also found that some of the attitudes towards unidentified migrants were represented in the treatment of burials. Their lives are clearly not regarded with the same importance as you would expect to see with other citizens and identified individuals. That is why volunteers like us are so important in helping to give their identities back, so their remains can be rightfully returned and their loved ones can receive the closure that they long for.

Checkpoint in Falfurias, TX
Checkpoint in Falfurias, TX

There is genuinely no better educational experience than being placed in a real-life application of the techniques we have been studying out of textbooks for years. I learned so much about my UIndy colleagues and Dr. Latham during the 11 days we spent together. We shared so many laughs, coffees, spicy foods, physical struggles, and inside jokes together. Plus, although we felt slow and loopy at times, we never lost sight of our goals. The fire still burns inside me from this humbling, humanitarian experience and I cannot wait to share it with friends, family, and strangers — to spread awareness about the silent loss of human lives taking place in our country.

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Hope to see you again soon, Texas.

Sammi

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Together We Can Do Great Things

The Beyond Borders blog focuses mostly on the achievements of the UIndy forensics team as they work on a large scale migrant identification initiative. However, our team is just a small part of a large group working on issues surrounding this massive humanitarian crisis.  We would like to use today’s blog post to highlight some of the other amazing people that spent the first half of January working on exhumations in Willacy county.

Dr. Kate Spradley is a biological anthropologist from Texas State University and the Director of Operation Identification (OpID).  OpID was created in 2013 to to facilitate the identification and repatriation of unidentified human remains found along or in close proximity to the South Texas border through community outreach, scientific analysis, and collaboration with governmental and non-governmental organizations. She coordinated the exhumation efforts in Willacy County.

Dr. Spradley
Dr. Spradley

Dr. Tim Gocha is a biological anthropologist from University of Nevada, Las Vegas who volunteered to work on the exhumation efforts in south Texas.  Last year he was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University, where he helped manage Operation Identification. This year he is volunteering to continue working on these identification efforts.

Dr. Gocha
Dr. Gocha

Dr. Nicholas Herrmann is a biological anthropologist from Texas State University who conducted ground penetrating radar prior to the excavations to locate the burials. He also spent several days at the site working on a digital map using RTK satellite navigation.

Dr. Herrmann
Dr. Herrmann

Robert Shults is a photographer who has spent the last few years photographing the various laboratories and projects associated with the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University.  He not only photographed the work happening at the cemetery but also spent a lot of time digging himself.

Rob Shults
Rob Shults

Dr. James Fancher is a dentist and Air Force Colonel who has practiced dentistry, worked in dental education and assisted with forensic identification efforts. He volunteered to work on the exhumation efforts in Willacy County.

Dr. Fancher
Dr. Fancher

Deputy Don White is a Volunteer Deputy for the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office and experiences the migrant death crisis personally through his search and rescue efforts.  He volunteered not only to be site security but also got his hands dirty on many occasions assisting with the exhumations.

Deputy Don White
Deputy Don White

Eddie Canales is the Director of the South Texas Human Rights Center, which is dedicated to the promotion, protection, defense and exercise of human rights and dignity in South Texas. Their mission is to end death and suffering on the Texas/Mexico border through community initiatives. He spent a few days with us in the field working on the exhumations and gathering important documentation regarding the burials.

Eddie Canales
Eddie Canales

There were a large number of students and volunteers from Texas State University, University of Indianapolis, University of Nevada, Las Vegas,  Tulane and The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, among others.  Additionally there were several Texas State University alums who served essential roles as team leaders in the field.

The Field Team
The Field Team

The ability to locate and exhume over 30 individuals who will now begin the identification and repatriation process was a team effort that relies largely upon volunteers and generous donors. Please support these organizations and spread awareness of this work as you can. Thank you!

 

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